Carving out a better future: Inganzo Woodcarving Cooperative


“I was 16 years old when I had my lower-leg blown apart by a mine.” Aimable pulls up his trouser leg to reveal his prosthetic limb and tells me about the day that changed his life. His task was to keep watch over some cows as they grazed in the hills. He followed them as they wandered into a patch of woodland and stepped right in the path of landmines from previous warfare. He spent the next eight months in hospital.

Loss of hope

With the loss of his leg came the loss of hope. “I was lonely and depressed,” he says, his face lit by a ribbon of light from a break in the roof above him. In Rwanda, over 90% of people are subsistence farmers. They eke out a living by relying on their physical strength to grow food in small plots of land. For people with disabilities, gainful employment is an up-hill task, which is no mean feat in the land of a thousand hills.

The smell of wood chips and dust hangs faintly in the air, and a cool breeze wisps its way through the open door to the workshop as we sit among an array of tools and wooden ornaments. Hewn from years of hard work and perseverance, this small group of men form a solid unit of shared knowledge and skill. None of this would be the case were it not for some nuns who took it upon themselves to visit Aimable while he was languishing in hospital.

The nuns helped him find a prosthetic leg and offered him work when he recovered. They asked him if he wanted to train in woodcarving, following a visit from an Italian clay worker and woodcarver who would go on to share her knowledge with Aimable and Sylvere, another man in need of decent employment. Jean de Dieu, Celestin, Joseph, Emmanuel, and Faustin, would later join them to form the Inganzo woodcarving association.

A man uses a tool to carve a tree trunk

Sylvere puts his tools to work. Photo: Luke McGregor

Learning from scratch

The years that followed were far from easy.  None of the men had any knowledge of woodcarving to begin with. “I cut my fingers when I first started carving,” says Aimable.  “I was very discouraged.” However, over time and with great determination, the men improved their techniques. They partnered with Azizi Life to sell their crafts. “They [Azizi Life] shared samples and ideas for products, asking us to come back with similar things of good quality. We were inspired and improved the quality of our products to sell.”

Now, the men take pride in their work. “Working with my hands and helping to provide for my family makes me feel like a complete person. I do not feel disabled,” says Jean de Dieu. He leans forward, eyes wide, animated with joy.  Jean de Dieu was born with a rare condition in which his legs were too short and frail to support him and enable him to walk properly. With the money he earns from woodcarving with the group, he hopes to save enough to buy a new pair of specialist orthopaedic shoes that will help him to walk. They cost around $400. It will take time to save for them, but at least it’s now possible.

 “Working with my hands and helping to provide for my family makes me feel like a complete person; I do not feel disabled.”  Jean de Dieu.

These men have carved more than just beautiful wooden ornaments – they’ve carved out a brighter future for themselves and their families. “Together, we help each other with our problems,” says Jean de Dieu, settling into his chair. “The stronger members go out and collect heavy materials for us to work with.”

From novice to master craftsman

It’s remarkable that these men had no prior knowledge of their now much-loved craft, having progressed from novices to master craftsmen. They strive for excellence and constantly train each other in new skills, as they were trained by others. If, as happened over the years, a professional woodcarver came to share their knowledge with one member of the group, that knowledge would be passed on to all the other members. No one was in it for themselves. Knowledge and know-how was pooled and strengthened the whole group.

“What gives you hope?” I ask Aimable. “Family… And prayer,” he replies, smiling. While some would ask of God: Why me? Aimable sees it differently. “God saved me from dying. He helped me walk again. He sent people my way that would help me learn my craft, and I know that God is with me and that He loves me.”

We head outside. On my way out, I glance at a wooden statue in the back of the workshop of a nun clutching a book. Maybe this was the group’s way of remembering the kindness of the nuns who visited Aimable in hospital back in 1996 as he lay there in pain. Could they have known what events they would set in motion?

A man carves a piece of wood

Jean De Dieu hones his handiwork. Photo: Luke McGregor

Fair trade crafts for a fairer future

When you buy Inganzo’s fair trade crafts, you’re helping these men pay for health insurance for their families so that they can stay healthy and live life to the full. You’re helping them pay for school fees so that their children can learn and flourish in school. Your purchase has purpose and impacts another generation for the better. Your purchase proves that their talent, God-given potential and hard work is paying off. And when their tools are put to rest for the evening and they leave their workshop, they’ll know that their futures are ones they’ve carved out for themselves.

Learn more about the Inganzo Woodcarving Cooperative and buy their beautiful fair trade crafts today

Six men standing in a line and smiling

Left to right: Jean de Dieu, Faustin, Aimable, Joseph, Emmanuel, Sylver. Photo: Azizi Life

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